D.C. Metro Is Transit Dream

The GUARDIAN editor is in the Nation’s Capitol working for the “day job.”

Each time we ride the METRO subway/surface mass transit trains we must marvel at how clean, well run, and efficient it is. The system is basically four lines that come from each direction and wind through the city in the rough shape of a Swastika.

In the burbs many stops have park and ride ramps that are full to the gills with cars. The riders seem friendly and helpful to tourist from places like Idaho. They all ask, “Where are you from” if you ask a question or carry a camera.

But folks, the costs to build and run a system like this are pretty much the same whether you serve 200,000 people or 6 million. If the Boise airport parking garage is worth $30 million, the series of parking garages on the D.C. METRO “orange line” alone would exceed the entire budget of Boise in any year.

We can see first hand the advantages of mass transit, but it takes MASSES to make it work and foot the bill to build it. Great for big cities, the ruin of places like Boise.

We have little doubt that assorted planners and consultants will be making “light rail” sales pitches to the Treasure Valley decision makers in the near future. We can’t afford it and the GUARDIAN feels strongly that we need to look toward BUS solutions as a permanent, expandable system and not as a stop gap measure.

We are NOT Washington, Denver, or Chicago and let’s hope we never achieve such status.

Comments & Discussion

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  1. I agree that the Metro is a great way to get around D.C. and your assessment of its looks and operation is right on. (I just wish they’d run a line all the way out to Dulles Airport)! You’re also correct about the need to “think small” if the Treasure Valley is going to create a system that handles riders trying to get to locations beyond downtown. The criss-cross method you proposed earlier with smaller busses and expandability makes sense.

  2. We could be at a million people by 2015, with a poor highway system, we need transit by 2020.

  3. I rode the subways a lot when I was in D.C.
    They were amazing: cars, stations, evrything was spotless. One time a guy near me pulled a package of gum out of his shirt pocket in a subway stop; a voice from the ceiling commanded: PUT THAT BACK!!” He did.
    Apparently every part of it is monitored, and the rules are strictly enforced.
    Yep, it takes a large population to support it and keep the fares low enough to make it usable even to us po’ folk.

    Boise may never be able to afford even basic rail service. Of course it would have been a lot easier to do if they hadn’t torn out the tracks that were used many years ago for what now would be called light rail. It wouldn’t eliminate the need for buses, but sure could cut the traffic along the route it ran.

    Oh, well — if oil prices keep going up and wars and terrorists keep blowing up oil wells, pipelines, etc., we may all be riding in on horses … ya still get pollution, but it’s biodegradable and sure makes your garden grow good. 🙂

  4. It’s only a matter of time before Boise will require progressive transit solutions. At current pace the Boise valley will have well over a million in population by 2020; so why not plan for that? Public transportation via bus service is fine, but it will also need to be supplemented by some sort of rail service as well. whether you like it or not Boise will be a major city in the near future and to make it less painful we need to suck it up and plan for it.

    EDITOR NOTE– We growthophobes have no intention of sucking up anything, especially more dirty brought about by growth encouraged by politicos using OUR money!

  5. I’ve heard this argument before. It was Salt Lake City before the 2002 Winter Olympics. It’s a valid argument, but time has proven it wrong in Salt Lake City. They’ve expanded TRAX, and above ground light rail, and added stops. The line from the University was extended to the hospital. And now there are proposals for extending the line South to Provo and for an inclusion of a East-West line in the Southern end of the valley. Yes, Salt Lake is much larger than Boise, but that doesn’t change the fact that so many people were against TRAX before and now it’s become a commuter godsend.

    Basically, the primary line (which is “packed to the gills,” standing room only most of the time) runs North and South. The buses run East and West with a stop along the TRAX line. It’s timed well so the buses work smoothly with the TRAX schedule. TRAX would not work as well as it does without the buses, and the buses wouldn’t also be fully loaded without the TRAX. It’s a good system, even if people argued against it with so much force early on.

    Boise should look at the Salt Lake TRAX system. The North-South line used existing (unused) tracks that were already running through town to cut the cost. The East-West line runs on the road somewhat like the trolley lines of San Fransisco. I believe Boise can find a cost effective method to utilize a light rail. And when the community embraces the system, it will run like the D.C. system, only on a smaller scale.

  6. Beautiful photo, Dave. I, too, am a Metro fan.

    I agree: light rail and/or subway is a ways off for Boise, and we certainly wouldn’t need a system as extensive as those elsewhere. But think of what a single line runnning roughly parallel to I-84 would mean for traffic on the freeway.

    Meanwhile, let’s beef up the bus system with longer hours, first and foremost.

  7. The DC metro system is a wonder. I used it 30 years ago to get to and from the burbs to capitol hill for a high paying construction job. Boise,however,is not a city of 6 million but 200,000. Every western city I’ve lived in ( MT.,wash.,Or.) ,many with smaller populations has a SUPERB BUS SYSTEM that gets you any where in a 20 mile diameter of the city center you want to go and then connects with the next cities bus system. Boise and valley transit does not have to SPEND A BUNDLE OF TAX PAYERS MONEY for a decent transit system.All we need are more buses,running in a grid pattern say ,with a six mile radius that connects with all valley transit and that run from say 6 am to 9 PM. When I lived in Butte,MT ( pop. at the time 18,000 ) some 27 years ago the buses ran 7 days a week in a grid pattern and got you anywhere in the city you needed to go with much longer hours of operation than Boise’s run-DOOOWWWNN SYSTEM.Boise’s Bus drivers are great and hard working,The customers are courteous and will talk about how they want a better system. The Answer? WE NEED A LOCAL OPTION TAX TO FUND NEEDED PROGRAMS LIKE THIS FOR THE PEOPLE.The politicians have proven they do not care so lets do it ourselves. There are constitutional ways that the Citizens can use to put a local option tax on the ballot… Lets do it!

  8. I just read an article on Truthout.org that was titled “Imagine a world without cars” which talked about the peak oil years behind us. It also talked about the need for more efficient mass transportation and the failure of not expanding rail travel in favor of the national highway system. I think we took the wrong road at that time. Flying and driving are both very inefficient uses of petroleum products. We need to get the national and local rail systems up and running. With the boomers reaching old age we will have many more people unable to drive. Sounds like Salt Lake City was very smart in its choices.

  9. I agree that the bus plan is attainable relatively quickly and at a nominal expense. But let’s not stop there.

    I also agree with the previous comments proposing to start planning ahead now. We may not have as long as we think (and hope, for all us growthophobes). This spring, brown guck hangs over Boise Valley daily, returning in less than 24 hours after precipitation. State Street between Highway 16 and the Eagle Bypass has been slowed daily to stop-and-go between 8 a.m. and 8:15 a.m. during the last two weeks. This previously happened occasionally at that time but not daily has it has recently.

    Developers are either happily tearing up dirt along the route or panting to begin. What will happen when the area is totally built out between Eagle Road and Highway 16? This could be reality within less than five year. Even sooner, the land in Boise across from the State Street Maverick station (that of the infamous lottery ticket) is being developed with commercial and residential buildings. But there are no immediate plans for a signal there.

    Whatever near-term solution we come up with for transportation in the Treasure Valley should be accompanied with long-term thinking that includes some type of rail lines.

  10. Nothing like having billions of federal dollars to pour into a heavy rail system like the Washington Metro. Add space age technology from the 70s and 80s, nearly 4,000,000 people in the DC urbanized area, and it does work because it is a MASS transit system serving MASSES of people.

    Our local planners project about 800,000 people in the Treasure Valley by 2030 and a million in the six county (Ada, Canyon, Boise, Gem, Elmore, and Payette) area in that same time frame. Idaho Power seems to be projecting similar numbers. If I were a betting person, I’d place more trust in the Idaho Power numbers.

    When it comes to transit, comparing Salt Lake City to Boise is like comparing apples to oranges. We don’t have (and won’t have) the population density to support a light rail system. Look at the urbanized area population density difference between Salt Lake and Boise. Salt Lake is about 3,800. Boise is about 2,500. If you add the Nampa urbanized area to the Boise one, the local numbers get even smaller (and the gap larger when compared to SLC). That’s a big difference when it comes to transit. And Treasure Valley transit planners don’t see much change in density even 20 years down the track.

    The Salt Lake bus system doesn’t do a lot better than the Boise bus system when it comes to passengers per hour comparisons.

    Yes, SLC light rail does haul about 30,000 people a day in a fairly narrow corridor. That’s good ridership for an area the size of SLC. However, UTA’s own comparison numbers against 10 other light rail operations show their light rail service ridership ranked fourth from the bottom – just ahead of Cleveland, Denver and San Jose – in the passengers per hour catagory. Tri-Met in Portland has the highest light rail ridership per hour according to the UTA comparison.

    The Treasure Valley doesn’t have the abundance of excess railroad tracks (and railroad maintenance facilities) that SLC has. We don’t have a narrow transportation corridor like SLC. Or a professional sports team.

    Let’s preserve our existing rail corridor but also invest in a better bus system which has better management than the current one. The Guardian had it right with his “surface subway” proposal of March 22nd.

  11. 800,000 in the Treasure Valley by 2030 is an extremely conservative estimation. In the planning community we were predicting one million by 2025 and that was five years ago. Again, we can begin now putting the infrastructure and finances in place and plan for this inevitable growth or we can remain in reactive mode and deal with a much greater growth pains in the future. I remain hopeful that we will do the right thing, but knowing Idaho politics I’m not overly optimistic.

    EDITOR NOTE–River City, are you not concerned that the likes of Micron, Albertson, Cabela, etc. Do not pay their fair share of taxes? Are you not concerned that Boise gets NOTHING from all the CCDC improvements?

    Are you not concerned, that faced with rampant growth, Boise, Ada County, State of Idaho are all spending our taxes to increase the population under the guise of “creating high paying jobs?”

    We human citizens are more than just a “source of revenue!”

  12. First, we get a bus system that works. The previous article here speaks to that. After we get that up and running, we have to make it so bloody expensive to drive downtown, people will seriously consider mass transit. I realize the downtown business community would “freak” at such a proposal, but we are not far from “emergency” action.

  13. Yossarian_22
    Apr 8, 2007, 8:26 pm

    I agree with Jim Kunstler who rails against a do nothing attitude. Rail is NOT an obsolete notion like I keep reading about from those in love with their cars. In the near future, when peak oil has taken its toll and demolished the suburban dream, rail will be THE long and medium range mode of necessity, NOT merely choice! Buses will be local connectors and cars/trucks will be short range luxuries. Bikes and walking will be the numero uno mode of getting around. If you think spending money on rail systems is alot, add up all of the maintenance and building costs from the last 50 years for roads and stack that up against the designs of what we could have had in a multi-modal bus/rail/bike/pedestrial community, like in Europe or South America or Japan. A car centered sprawling culture like ours IS the biggest misallocation of wealth that has been conceived.

  14. RiverCity

    If you feel the population estimate numbers are conservative then maybe you need to visit with your fellow planners at Compass and the demographic folks at Idaho Power. The Compass prediction for Ada and Canyon counties for 2030 is reported to be about 825,000. The Idaho Power forecast is reported to be about 874,000. I’d still trust the Idaho Power numbers over the Compass numbers. Then there’s the “chicken little” forecast of 1.5 million that Hizz Honor has used on at least one occasion.

    Yes, growth is inevitable here in the Valley. And yes, we do need to plan for the future in both terms of infrastructure and finances. The problem is the local politicos keep ignoring the plans each time a developer walks in with a grand “new” idea for making things “better” for all of us. Look at the mess that has been created around the mall. It started out as a “mixed use” area.

    You say that “public transportation via bus service is fine, but it will also need to be supplemented by some sort of rail service as well.” Why would an area of a million people or less need to supplement bus service with rail services? Why would a busway, which offers more flexibility, not be sufficient? What type of rail service do you envision? Where would it operate? How many people would use it? What is your capital cost estimate? What is your operating cost estimate? Please use this forum to elaborate on your assertion and to answer those questions. Give us some examples.

    Cyclops – You’re right. The local politicos do need to make it so bloody expensive to drive a vehicle downtown that some form of public transportation will become an alternative. Don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen though.

  15. Editor, of course I’m concerned about all those things, but what does that have to do with my comments? We live in a conservative state that seems unwilling to make businesses and development pay their own way, and at the same time they refuse or are afraid to allocate taxes to secure infrastructure and plan for the future. Listen to our legislature every year, they typically take a reactive mode to everything, wanting to wait until it’s a real problem before the deal with it, of course by then it’s often too late. When I hear conservatives complain about all of this, especially rampant growth, I ask them who they voted for. The answer is typically ironic.

    EDITOR NOTE–My frustration lies with accepting growth as inevitable. Not unlike building a house in the forest and then demanding someone protect it. Increase the number of fishermen and then try to produce more fish in the same water with the same food.

    Growth is “inevitable” because our politicos encourage and accommodate it. We can have progress and improvement without growth and expansion.

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